Bowermaster’s Adventures: Baptism by waves

I hadn’t thought much about baptism since the last time I watched “The Godfather” until I saw a photo a couple weeks ago of 29 Marines (the Ohio-based 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment) on the verge of setting off for Afghanistan being given full rites in the Pacific Ocean near Camp Pendleton.

Which made me wonder exactly how many people use the ocean for baptism … and where did the notion of being plunged underwater to affirm ones Christian beliefs come from anyway?

Marines interviewed said they believed the rite would help them “perform our job the way we need to in a very challenging environment” and bring them home safely. Initially I thought their Sunday morning full-submersions — administered by the battalion’s chaplain and part of Operation Sword of the Spirit, a program meant to prepare the battalion for duty in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province — was unusual. (Other Marines weren’t not so pleased by the very public baptisms, suggesting that the images gave the Taliban spin-masters too-easy p.r. photos suggesting that the U.S. truly is engaged in some kind of Holy War.)

But the almighty Google proved that baptism by waves is still common. Apparently many times a week somewhere along the edge of the country – from Ocean Grove and Pacific Palisades in California to the sand beaches of Florida and New Jersey – Christians, both adults and children, walk voluntarily into the sea to have their beliefs affirmed.
Typical mass-baptism announcements are abundant and include the Where (Pier Ave and the Strand, Hermosa Beach); the Date (July 11, 2010); the Time (3 p.m.), the Features (kids, open to all, volunteer) and Dress Code (ladies, wear dark t-shirt and shorts over your swim suit; guys, please wear a t-shirt and swim trunks).

Just a few weeks ago the fifth-annual Bridgefest in Old Bridge, NJ, kicked off with a free surfing clinic and closed with an appearance by an American Idol contestant (Mandisa?!?), but centered on a “massive ocean baptism with hundreds dedicating their lives to Christ.”

The practice is popular enough that it now has its own celebratory pop tune, (“The full immersion ocean water baptism by sea, Welcomin’ the people who are new to the family, People singin’ praises as they watch from the harbor wall …”).

And advice columns like this from Mrzboopie, counseling an 18-year-old wondering if she should go ahead and just do it. Yes, affirmed Mrzboopie: “The assistant pastor who was with me said a prayer and then I held my nose as he quickly dunked me under the water, then it was all done and everyone was clapping and praising God and all that.”

Ocean baptisms are hardly limited to the U.S. of A.; a recent photo of 700 Mozambiquans – among the poorest people on the planet — lined up in pairs to have their sins cleansed, dressed in tattered blue jean shorts and colorful dresses.
Early interpretations of the New Testament suggest a “water-rite for the purpose of purification, washing and cleansing of vessels or of the body” is a good thing. Despite its popularity there is still debate among Christians as to where the practice originated and about some of its hows and whys.

For example, must you be fully immersed for it to take, or will a partial submersion do? Will a simple sprinkling of water on the head (known as aspersion) suffice? Or must it be affusion (pouring water over the head)?

Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Sainters all belief total immersion is the only way to go, “just as Jesus Christ was baptized … a person’s whole body should be put under the water momentarily.”

Just where Jesus stood on the whole ablution thing is still a matter of debate among Biblical scholars. That he was baptized (in the River Jordan, by John the Baptist) is not contended. But his take on the necessity of baptism sparks debate; apparently Jesus himself never baptized anyone.

Water plays an important role in other religions, too. Sikhs are known to drink water from an iron bowl for forgiveness. Muslims are encouraged to wash before prayer. But the Quakers have disavowed the practice of baptism, encouraging followers to find redemption inside, not from outside sources.

As for those Marines heading off for Afghanistan, any extra talisman is probably a good thing. Forty-six Marines and two Navy corpsmen of the same battalion were killed in Iraq, 14 on a single day.

From the shores of Louisiana: The Louisiana Environmental Action Network

When Marylee Orr started what has become Louisiana’s most effective environmental organization she thought it would be a six-month commitment. “I realized how dirty our air and water were at that time and felt it was my civic duty to try and raise awareness of the problems. But I didn’t realize that it would become my life.” That was twenty-four years ago.

I’ve known Marylee for the past 15 years; we worked together initially on stories about how the big petrochemical plants lining the Mississippi were poisoning local aquifers … and not telling anyone once they learned. Standing in her Baton Rouge driveway two weeks into the spill she rests her arm on a 35-foot-long rowboat that was delivered to her last summer, rowed the length of the Mississippi from its source in Minnesota. Among the many hats she wears as executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, she is also the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, part of the international Waterkeeper Alliance. The rowboat was gifted to her as a way for her local team to get out onto the river they help protect.

But since the Gulf oil spill, she’s been far too busy to do anything but man the telephones, 12, 13 hours a day. “We are all suffering from disaster fatigue,” she admits, “from sleeping just four and five hours a night for weeks now.

“We are responding just as we did after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Documenting everything that’s going on, trying to keep people informed, especially our fishermen. Being a conduit for information, like about what’s going on with the dispersants that BP is putting in the water and claiming are not harmful. We went to court on a Sunday to force BP to forego the contracts they were trying to get the fishermen who were going to help with the cleanup to sign. They basically said if they got hurt their own insurance would have to cover them, that BP wouldn’t cover their boats if they were damaged and that they wouldn’t be able to speak about what was happening out there, essentially giving away all their rights. We got that stopped in with a lawsuit.


“But we are also working on getting food to the fishermen because many of them are not going to be making any money for awhile and will have lots of needs.”

“You have to understand that the fishing communities love the sea like they love a child. Part of our duty is to make sure whatever they are doing to try and help save and protect that ‘child’ is safe and fair for them.”

I ask what she considers the worst-case scenario. She doesn’t have to think long: “That this way of life, that these Gulf Coast communities may not exist anymore, that this life as we know it … is finished.

“My own sons, who are now young men, are really concerned about their own future. I mean, Is Baton Rouge going to be lakefront property in their lifetimes? Is the seafood going to be healthy? Are there even going to be any fishermen left in Louisiana? We smile, but it is a little bit like whistling through a graveyard here. If you don’t have a little sense of humor, you’re never going to survive. “

Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St. John – Day 4

Arthur Jones came to St. John from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to be a Caribbean kayak guide. He thought it would last a season, maybe two. Seventeen years later he’s still here and helping me explore the island’s rugged coast. “I never thought I would stay this long but … look around.” The island national park of St. John rises behind and St. Thomas – capital of the USVI — is just three miles to the west. The low hills of Tortola and the rest of the British Virgin Islands spread to the north and east, silhouetted in the morning light, appearing to go on forever. “Why would I leave?”

Pushing kayaks off Maho Beach we head out and around Whistling Cay. Winds are calm today; they can often blow 10 to 20 knots, making for challenging kayaking. Tiny, silvery baitfish jump in packs of hundreds, suggesting predators are nearby. Sure enough, just below the surface swim a dozen 30-pound tarpon and above circles a gang of pelicans.

I ask Arthur if he can explain a mystery of nature I’ve long wondered about: Why don’t pelicans break their necks when they slam beak-first onto the hard surface of the water? “Surprisingly, they do, but not for the reasons you might think. A scientist once explained that all those years of impacting eventually affect their eyes, which go bad. And then they die misjudging the water because they can’t see so well anymore. They hit a rock or hit the water too early or too late, and snap their necks. Hard to believe, but true.”

As we paddle we hear the green turtle break the surface before we see it. “There are lots of turtles out here, both in and out of the national park boundaries, but especially inside the park. Somehow I think they’ve figured out it’s a good place not to get hunted.”


On Whistling Cay the hills are steep, spiked with cactus. A solitary beach is accessible through the breaking surf, perfect for resting the kayaks and snorkeling among the coral. On the far side of the island is the shell of an old Danish custom’s house; a similar one is on Great Thatch Island, in the BVI, just a couple miles away. “Apparently the guys manning the signal fires used to get bored and just signal each other,” says Arthur.

It’s changing though. “See those houses there, on the hill?” he asks, pointing back towards the main land of St. John. “None of those was here when I came.” Fortunately the natural world here is less changed.

The next day with a rented 4×4, necessary due to the steep hills and muddy paths that take over when the roads run out, I visit all of the island that is accessible by road. From East End to Saltpond Bay and on to Great Lameshur Bay, all surrounding the big Coral Bay; this is the less populated, more rugged, wilder side of the wild island.

Where the main town of Cruz Bay’s streets are narrow and tightly packed with restaurants and souvenir shops, the road that winds through the island’s only other town of any substance — Coral Bay — is pocked with a couple small commercial developments and a handful of roadside shacks selling fish and vegetables.

My research into what makes this end of the island tick begins – and ends, much later in the day — at the bar at Skinny Legs, just past the Emmaus Moravian Church and on the road to the village of Palestina. The bar on weekday afternoon is amazingly packed. Named for the identifying mark of its two Boston-based founders, the open-air room boasts a half-dozen TV’s turned to sports and tables for 50 burger munchers and beer swillers. Jimmy Buffet is on the stereo; this is clearly the stop for both expats who’ve already made their escape to the island and visitors desirous of doing exactly the same one-day. Lots of big-sunburned guys with ponytails who long ago opted for the easier pace of island life. One weak coffee, a club soda and one very good Kamikaze later, I’m back on the road, promising to return for the baseball playoffs (available only in Spanish) later that night.

Following the bartender’s recommendation, I hike the Drunk Bay Trail to the Salt Pond at the island’s eastern end. During dry season its floor of muddy red algae creates a thick layer of sea salt and locals come daily to collect it for their home tables. At Lameshur Bay the road ends and a long, winding foot trail leads to and joins Reef Bay Trail, where evidence of the early Taino Indians exists in petroglyphs carved into the stone. As I hike, island cats are everywhere and a pair of mongoose sprint across the road on the trail of big lizards that have gone ahead, trundling through big muddy puddles. Land crabs idle along the road.

Back in the car I veer off the road at a sign announcing Concordia Estates. Concordia is the sister resort to Maho Bay Camps, boasting slightly more sophisticated tents with views out over Rams Head Point. The point, formed by tectonic plates grinding together beneath the ocean surface where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea adjoin, looking out over Flanagan’s Passage towards Tortola. To the east, Nanny Point juts into the sea, covered with soon-to-flower barrel cactus, big red buds popping out of the thick-necked cacti. Geologically this is the oldest rock on St. John. “St. John’s gets a tremor each day,” says manager Jennifer Pierce, who left Maine and an organic farming business a decade ago for the ability to swim in a warm ocean every day. “I’ve had the earth move significantly enough that my furniture has been dancing in my room.” Probably not a selling point these days, given the tremblers that seem to be rocking the world corner by corner.

Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St. John – Day 3

I spent one rare rainy day in St. John with Jane Johannis, who couldn’t have been happier about the dampness outside her simple house. “When it rains like this I put out every pot and pan I have, in order to keep my plants watered,” she says.

A native of the island, at 80-plus years old her skin as beautiful as fine Italian leather, eyes reduced to slits from years spent tending her garden under a hot sun, she wears a long pink dress and flip-flops. Her hair, remarkably free of gray itself, is pulled back in a tight bun. One of seven children, with nine kids of her own, she has lived most of her life in the small island town of Coral Bay. “You could say I’m surrounded by family all the time, yes,” she says, though she’s not against the occasional off-island foray and has been to New York and LOVES Las Vegas. “I do manage to play the slot machines,” she smiles, “since I’m not a drinker I need to have something to do!” But more than anything she loves her island life and her gardens.
Her expertise is the herbal medicines she finds everywhere in the bush, giving the occasional class but counseling her friends and neighbors for free. “People now they too easily run right to the pharmacy when they need something. They tell me, ‘It’s easier.’ I don’t agree. Me, I never go to the pharmacy. The doctor? He’s the last person I turn to!”


What does she find in scrub and forests? Black wattle for fighting colds. Aloe for burns. Eye bright, which is – believe it or not – makes your eyes stronger. Sour sop used as a sleeping aid. Bastard okra, boiled and used to relieve burning eyes. Breadfruit leaves, used in an infusion to cure high blood pressure and lime leaves boiled with salt to fight aging. “Those are the ones I rely on most these days,” she laughs.

She’s not wild about some of the changes on her island, like the cost of living and taxes both of which are going up. “Even Coral Bay is changing, with more shops, more people, more everyt’ing,” she says. I’m headed to her small town the next day and ask for a recommendation on a good place to eat, the best places to hike. “Go to Salt Pond, for sure. That’s where we collect the best sea salt. The best restaurant would be Lucy’s, but she died the other day at 93, of a stroke. I’m going to her funeral tomorrow. So that restaurant be closed for a private party. But you might stop by anyway. Probably be the best party of the year!”

Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St. John – Day 2

Given its history of wildness, the 114-tent-and-boardwalk resort known as Maho Bay Camps is a perfect fit on St. John, as close to a true eco-resort as any I’ve seen around the world. Which surprises no one more than Stanley Selengut, the camp’s owner who put up the initial 18 tents in 1976. “That phrase – eco-resort – didn’t exist then,” says a longtime Maho Bay manager once explained to me. “Stanley and a bunch of his friends were down here and someone said, ‘This would be a great place for some tent platforms.’ Typical for Stanley, it may not have been his idea, he was the one that figured out how to get things done.”

In these days when any hotel that encourages you not to wash your towel every day wraps itself in a green banner, Maho Bay Camps is the real thing. Recycle-reuse-reduce is its watch-phrase. Showers are communal; potable water accessible in just a couple locations in the 14-acre compound; the restaurant is self-serve; urinals water-less; much of the energy needed to run 114 tents, reception, restaurant, internet solar-produced. In its art studios –open to all guests — glass is recycled by the glass-blowing studio, waste paper by the textile-makers and aluminum cans turned into pendants.

There is definitely a hippie-ish feel to the place, from the tie-dyed batiks made in the textile room to the “volunteers” who come for month-long stints, trading work for a free place to stay. During high season the place fills with families who’ve been coming now for two generations.


I stay in tent-cabin, A-6, anchoring the far end of the boardwalk, closest to the beach at Maho Bay. It’s perfect for me. Through cracks in the deck flooring I can see the jungle below. The stove is propane, the refrigerator an Igloo cooler filled with ice, and table and chairs made of plastic. A box fan whirs, thanks to 24-hour electricity, necessary to keep the mosquitoes at bay. As I write, a frigate bird lands atop a palm just outside my window and white-tailed tropicbirds and brown boobys flit and soar. Inside, small anole lizards — gecko-like, with colorful, leaf-like dewlaps — do push ups in front of me, reminding me that this is their territory.

Letting the screen door bang behind, I find the head of Maho Goat Trail and wander down to the beach. From here it’s a mile-long walk to the start of one of the most beautiful of the park’s 22 official trails (there are countless unofficial ones, the former detailed in a variety of guidebooks and park service handouts, the latter marked with stone cairns and cryptic, handmade signs). I’m open to following any trail here since the only native mammals on the island are bats and there are no venomous snakes. The only surprise in the woods is the occasional wandering deer or donkey.

Later that one I hike down Cinnamon Bay Trail lured by its reputation for having an incredible lookout over Maho Bay. Inside the forest is dark, tropical, intensely green thanks to recent rains. The trail is narrow and steep to the downhill; you don’t want to slip. Strangler figs, kapok, cocoa, mango and bay rum trees are thick and tall, the undergrowth heavy with star-like teyer palms, sweet lime and anthurium. Turpentine trees – what locals have dubbed tourist tree – expose a pink skin beneath peeling bark. Guts, natural rocky drainages criss-cross the trail channeling water downhill; man-made swales – lines of strategically placed rocks across the trail – are angled to divert the rainwater and prevent erosion.

As I walk down, slowly to avoid slipping, a solitary black bat leads me. Small lizards, imported to the island centuries ago to help kill insects, run across the trail; a variety of snails meander. Yellow & black bananaquits dart among the trees, many of which are home to giant termite balls built in the low crotches. Halfway down the 45-minute hike the trees open up, exposing a western view from the island, over Cinnamon Bay to Trunk Bay and beyond.

As I walk I try to make out the stone terraces that once divvied the island into 100 sugarcane plantations. Everything was a clear-cut then, except for the mangoes and cocoa tree. Men, women and children slaved over the farms, in tropical heat.

At the bottom of the trail, just across from the long sand beach at Cinnamon Bay, sit the ruins of a two hundred year old plantation. Buildings, like the terraces, were constructed from stone, brain coral and occasionally imported red and yellow bricks from England and Germany. Tall stone columns, still standing, at one time supported the big room used to store brown sugar, molasses, barrels of rum and crushed and dried sugarcane stalks. There was a boiling and distillery house next door, where they used to make St. John’s Bay Rum (cologne, not alcohol!). Sitting on one of the stonewalls, sweating from the hike, nearly meditating thanks to the quiet of the forest, I can almost see and hear the young children climbing the bay rum trees, carefully stripping the leaves, putting them into sacks and carrying them off to be distilled.